Mastering Motor Skills

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I’ll never forget my son Whit’s first triumphant steps. For months, he’d been walking while clutching onto something, usually my hand. But shortly after his first birthday, he finally got the courage to let go. Holding out his hands to brace for a fall, he tentatively put one foot in front of the other, into my waiting arms. As I cheered, he broke into an enormous smile and an excited giggle. He couldn’t have been more proud—and I couldn’t wait to call his dad.

From walking and running to climbing and jumping, the toddler years are a time of major development of gross motor skills. While watching your little one meet each milestone can be fun, it also signals that he’s on track developmentally. But to master these movement skills, kids need lots of practice, notes pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, author of The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones. And she and other experts say that toddlers can be helped along with the right activities and environment.

The mind-body connection

Gross motor skills refer to large movements of the limbs and torso that require a complex interaction between the brain, nervous system and muscles. When babies are born, the parts of their brain that control and coordinate movement are immature, Altmann explains. Plus, they don’t have the physical strength to lift their head, much less stand up and walk. But over time, “nerve pathways are laid down and corresponding muscles strengthened so that they can respond to the nerve impulses and produce the required action,” says Altmann.

Most children acquire movement skills in the same predictable pattern, with the achievement of one milestone serving as a building block for the next, Altmann adds. For example, they crawl before they walk, and walk before they run, skip or hop. In turn, gross motor skills set the groundwork for fine motor skills, or small, precise movements of the hands, fingers, feet and toes.

“If a child has good head and neck control and a strong trunk from an activity like crawling, he’ll have an easier time sitting and practicing fine motor movements like eating with a spoon and coloring,” explains Gay Girolami, P.T., executive director of Pathways Center in Glenview, Ill., a pediatric therapy clinic for kids with early motor delays.

Heredity plays a role in when kids develop movement skills. So if you were a late walker, your little one is apt to be, too. But there’s more to it than DNA, Girolami says. Without ample opportunity to move and practice, even the most genetically gifted child can lag behind.

Translation: A toddler who is constantly confined to a car seat, stroller or play yard probably won’t be first in his playgroup to climb stairs or go down a slide. Neurologists aren’t sure why, but motor skills delays are on the rise, warns Tim Craig, an early childhood development specialist in Van Nuys, Calif. “At least 10 percent of the kids we see have motor deficiencies,” Craig says.

According to Girolami, the Back-to- Sleep campaign that has been effective in reducing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may be one factor. “When babies don’t spend enough time on their bellies, they’re slower to develop the muscles needed to push up and crawl,” she says. Likewise, they can develop asymmetries through their trunk and lower extremities that affect their ability to move. Current AAP recommendations call for supervised “tummy time” for infants to help build strength.

Meeting milestones

Developmental milestones can help you gauge your child’s progress. But it’s important to remember that they’re based on averages, says pediatrician Jennifer Shu, M.D., editor of American Academy of Pediatrics Baby and Child Health. So while most kids walk between 12 and 15 months of age, some start as early as 8 months and others aren’t ready until 18 months. “Every child develops at a different pace,” Shu says. “There are always going to be kids who are earlier or later.

As long as a child is progressing, even if it’s slow, we consider it normal.” Even more important than when your child meets each milestone is how she performs the skill, Girolami notes. “As a therapist, I don’t just look at whether a baby is walking,” she says. “I look at how he’s walking. Is he placing weight equally on both feet? Does he walk on his toes?”

The quality indicates whether a child has developed the fundamentals to perform the task and acquire later motor skills, she adds. Let’s get physical! Whether your toddler likes to sit and read or is always on the go, there are ways that you can help her hone her physical skills.

The first and most important step: spending time together. “The best thing you can do is get down on the floor and play with your child,” Girolami says. “Introduce her to new experiences, environments and toys that will motivate her to explore.” But don’t overschedule her with activities. A certain amount of unstructured “free play” is good for kids, Altmann adds. Providing your child with safe surroundings is also key to encouraging movement.

At home, take steps to childproof and set up a play area where your little one can move around freely. “Create an environment where you don’t continually have to say no,” Altmann says. Additionally, make regular visits to your local park, play gym and other places where your child can crawl, walk and run around without getting hurt.

When your child is attempting to learn a new skill, resist the urge to help her too much, adds Craig. “If she’s really stuck, you want to do the least amount—not the most—that you can do to help her solve the problem,” he says. For instance, if a toy is out of her reach, let her struggle a little to retrieve it.

Likewise, if she’s having trouble climbing onto a chair, don’t just lift her up; instead, guide her with verbal cues and let her figure it out herself. Last but not least, to avoid breeding a future couch potato, experts advise turning off the tube. Whenever a child is parked in front of a television screen, he’s missing an opportunity to develop strength and coordination.

While some toddlers may not seem to be affected by TV watching, others can experience a slight delay in meeting certain milestones. “In my practice, I notice kids who spend more time watching television usually don’t develop as quickly,” Altmann says. If you have any concerns about your child’s motor development, call your pediatrician. He or she may give you some tips, or ask you to bring in your child for an evaluation, Shu says.

If your little one has a motor skills delay, it could be due to poor vision or another easy-to-treat condition. Or, in rare instances, it could be something serious, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. Either way, early intervention is crucial in getting her up to speed.

From the moment they’re born, children grow quickly, Altmann adds. So cherish each precious moment and take an active role in your child’s development. “Spend time reading to her, playing with her, watching her progress—and, most of all, just have fun!” the mother of two says. Lots of hugs, praise and cheers are all most toddlers really need to get them moving in the right direction.

Ready, Set, Go!

Inspire your toddler to develop his gross motor skills with these fun games and toys, recommended by pediatrician Jennifer Shu, M.D.:

  • A push toy, such as a mini shopping cart or lawnmower, will get your 1-year-old on his feet and help him balance as he learns to walk.
  • A plastic backyard slide with steps is a great place for a 1- to 2-year-old to practice climbing.
  • An exciting game of chase or a relay race in an open, grassy area is a fun way to get your 2-year-old running.
  • Scooting around on a push trike will help your 18- to 36-month old develop the balance and coordination needed for pedaling.
  • Play hopscotch with your 2- to 3-year-old and he’ll jump for joy.
  • Pedaling a tricycle will help prepare your 3-year-old for the next big step: a bike with training wheels.
  • Sitting and bouncing on a giant ball with a handle will help your 3- to 4-year-old improve his balance and agility.
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